Sparks Electrical News March 2018

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MARCH 2018

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DRONES: THERE IS A CATCH

Credit: Franz Fuls

D ynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment. DRONES. These wonders of technology are systematically entering all facets of indus- try. When I was an Industrial Engineering student in the mid-90s, a lecturer once jokingly sketched a picture (for the class) of the one-man factory: every- thing is automated. The only human left in the plant is the bloke who feeds the guard dog! About two decades later we are technologically at the brink of real- ising this vision. Automation, robotics and drones are what will make it happen. But what is a drone? Is it the Reaper Military flying machine that the USA used to selectively bomb Afghanistan? Or maybe those buzzing quadcopter camera drones bratty teenagers use to spy on their neighbour’s daughter at the swimming pool, and estate agents use to take photos of the latest piece of real estate? Is it the automated Google car that is being pitched as the solution to all rush hour traffic problems, or the autonomous tractor that large commercial farmers trigger to automatically plough, plant, fertilise, weed and harvest their crops? All the above fit the definition of a drone. These robotics instruments range from miniature to massive. Some are dumb brutes while others have state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. I believe drones are the disruptive technology of the century and pos- sibly beyond. A drone increases productivity, reduces the amount of human labour required to complete a job; much like computer aided design (CAD) re- duced the number of draughtsmen needed per engineer on a construc- tion job. For those that resist change it is a threat. But to the innovative contrac- tor it becomes a tool that gives him a competitive advantage. Imagine a future where a contractor can deploy microdrones to crawl into trunking, identify a hotspot and repair it in less time than it will take a conventional worker to pull the wires. With the right minds applied in development this can very well become a tool which is affordable and available to small contractors soon. Other types of drone technology are already commercially available, in the form of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). These small remote-controlled aeroplanes, and quadcopters, are becoming com- monplace on construction sites and in heavy industry. Equipped with Near Infrared Cameras and other sensing technologies, they can iden- tify hotspots on High Tension overhead lines faster and more accurately than a linesman can ever dream of doing it. They make inspections of hard-to-come-by items a breeze, whizzing up into the sky to check up on everything from power station towers to cell phone towers. But there is a catch. Drones and electrical contractors Electricians have the Electrical Contractors Board and the Occupation- al Health and Safety Act to worry about, and no competent electrician will argue that a government ticket or a wireman’s license is a silly con- cept. The rules and regulations are there to keep the artisan, his client

and the end user safe. A competency issue in a worker who must perform switching on a substation can lead to major incidents, massive power out- ages and death. As a newly appointed safety specialist at a Chrome Smelter, I myself landed in serious trouble when I walked unannounced into a substation. It was quite embarrassing to receive a scalding from the electrician for not announcing myself and for entering without permission. I learned the consequences of messing with the regulatory turf of an electrician first hand in a very embar- rassing way! While the safety officers we rub shoulders with in the contractor’s world make us very familiar with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its reg- ulations, and while we know what the penalties are for contraventions on the General Machinery Regulations, the only thing most landlubbers know about aviation safety management is that it is so advanced that our safety officers just vaguely refer to it as ‘the best practice management system for safety’. The Aviation Industry, like the Electrical Industry, is well regulated.

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